Spare the Child

A scholarly and well-written indictment of the commonplace practice of corporal punishment, this book is divided into five parts. Part 1 presents an overview of the book and defines the problem: Physical punishment harms the child’s emotional and psychological development. There is no such thing as “legitimate violence” against children, according to Greven—all corporal punishment is child abuse. Moreover, physical assaults on children have global effects on culture, society, religion, politics, and the environment. Part 2 contains numerous graphic accounts of the persistent childhood memories of people who were beaten or suffered other physical punishment.

Part 3 presents biblical texts and other religious and secular rationales frequently offered for physically punishing children. It is the threat of divine punishment, in fundamentalist and evangelical Christian theology especially, that causes parents to hit children in the name of love. The intent, mandated by scripture, is to teach obedience to divine authority by making children submit to parental authority, a model of divine authority. Greven points out that even mainstream moderate Protestants condone physical punishment when persuasion does not work, although Jesus himself never advocated inflicting pain on children.

Part 4 details the enduring consequences of childhood punishment. It breeds depression, neuroses, aggression, delinquency, rebellion, active violence, and authoritarianism. Part 5 encourages parents to consider nonviolent, nurturing alternatives to physical punishment.

Greven’s arguments against physical punishment are compelling, but his crusading zeal leads him to simplistic explanations of complex problems. His thesis that physical discipline, even in its mildest form, is synonymous with child abuse will be hard for most Americans to accept. Anecdotal records do not prove a causal relationship between mild corporal punishment and pathology, and the few scientific studies Greven cites do not make a strong case. Nevertheless, Greven’s book will drive most readers to examine their own childhood experiences and childrearing practices in a more critical light.